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Garret Graves has a serious challenger. He’s 29, openly gay, likes to hunt and fish, and knows what he is talking about.

Meet Justin Dewitt.

Yesterday, The Bayou Brief sat down with Justin Dewitt, who is currently challenging incumbent Republican Garret Graves for Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District.

Lamar White (LW): So it sounds like you’re putting together a team, Justin?

Justin Dewitt (JD): Yes, I have been. Most of the folks so far are associated with Indivisible movement. Talented people.

LW: So is the Indivisible movement in Baton Rouge pretty strong, you think?

JD: It’s pretty decent. Yeah. I think there are around at least sixty or so people who show up to their meetings. There’s a lot more on their mailing list. I know there are around 200 people involved in their infrastructure, but not all 200 are continuously active, obviously.

LW: So, I want to talk about your would-be opponent Garret Graves. Why do you think he is vulnerable?

JD: He’s vulnerable because his legislative record has been reactive. If you think before the (August 2016) flood and even during his debate with Edwin Edwards, the Comite River Diversion Project was mentioned; flood zones were mentioned. And nothing has been done.

Also, he doesn’t have the same goals as I do. He seems more beholden to his donors than to the actual people. He ignores constituents constantly. For example, he had this townhall in Albany, in the middle of the day, on a Monday, and he rarely holds one in Baton Rouge or Livingston. And during these townhalls, he purposely skips questions and only answers questions that benefit him.

LW: I take it you’ve been to one of his townhalls?

JD: I’ve been to all of his townhalls on Facebook. I follow him. I was not able to make the townhall in Albany on that Monday, because, unfortunately, like most working people in Louisiana, I have to work on Monday afternoons and don’t have time to go to a small library in a small town.

LW: It is interesting that you mention his virtual townhalls. I think he may be the only person in our congressional delegation who pretty actively uses Facebook Live. I’ve participated in one of those- well, actually, I just observed. But I can vouch for your comment. He does regularly ignore critical questions.

JD: He also employs another tactic that my friends in the Indivisible movement can tell you about. They invited him to one of their meetings. He never confirmed his attendance. They didn’t know if he was going to come. And then he shows up after he knows the meeting is over. Two hours later. No one is there. And he records this on Facebook, and he pretends as if the Indivisible movement is so disorganized that they weren’t even there for their own meeting when he knew well that their meeting ended two hours ago.

LW: Wow.

JD: Dirty little tactics.

LW: There’s a particular issue that I know some associated with Gov. Edwards have been critical with Graves about, and it involves the Comite River Diversion Project. Graves falsely contended that Louisiana could use money specifically intended to help the 10,000 or so families whose homes were flooded- disaster relief money- in order to instead help construct the project. I’m wondering about your thoughts on the Comite River Diversion Project. How much of a priority should it be?

JD: It’s a huge priority for me. I personally flooded as well, and we know that if the project had been completed on time, it would have eased some of the flooding in 2016.

It is our Congressman’s job to secure money from the federal government to pay for these projects. Louisiana, like most states, doesn’t have the resources to pay for these projects. After Katrina, for example, imagine if Louisiana had to cover the costs of recovery.

LW: I’m curious about your thoughts on the historical lawsuits against the oil and gas companies. Graves and many of his Republican colleagues seem to be reflexively opposed to holding these companies accountable, which is outrageous to me, at least. I’ve seen some internal polling that suggests overwhelming majorities of people throughout the state, including in your congressional district, support these lawsuits and want these companies to pay for the damage they inflicted on our coast.

JD: I support these lawsuits 110%, and I know the reason so many Republicans are opposed is simple: It’s because that’s where most of their money comes from.

Something like 76% of the donations Graves has received are from either the oil and gas industry or associated industries, like barge manufacturers. Much of his money are from businesses and individuals that he worked with during his tenure at the Coastal Restoration Authority throughout the Jindal administration.

LW: Do you think this is an issue of regulatory capture?

JD: Absolutely. When these oil companies received contracts to build or dredge these canals, they were required to fix whatever damages they created. It’s as simple as this: If someone comes onto your property and destroys it, they pay to fix it.

Here in Louisiana, these companies come in and destroy our marshland. You know, a lot of these Republicans like to tout how much they love Sportman’s Paradise. They like to hunt and fish, which I do too. But guess what? If we continue to allow these companies to do what they’ve been doing, there won’t be a Sportsman’s Paradise anymore.

I don’t see how you can say you love Louisiana because of its hunting and fishing while supporting the destruction of our environment.

LW: As I mentioned earlier, these lawsuits are supported by the vast majority of Louisianians, and Louisianians also rank protecting the environment as a top issue in the state. So, where’s the disconnect? Is it that our politicians are just beholden to the industry, or is it that Democrats, like you and me, are failing to message correctly?

JD: I believe it’s a little bit of both. The Democrats are right when they argue that we need to be environmentally friendly. We need to combat climate change. And I agree. We must combat climate change. But when we message on those issues, Republicans pull out- pardon the pun- a trump card. They tell people that they’re going to lose their jobs, that the economy will be devastated. They like to confuse voters. You know, most of us have jobs and families and consume politics differently than professional politicians. So, it’s been effective for Republicans to simply say, “Don’t vote for this candidate, because they want to take your job away.”

Of course, this isn’t true. These oil companies, for example, what will happen when you sue them? Well, Republicans will tell you that if you sue them, they will probably threaten our jobs. But what are they going to do? Move? They’re not going anywhere. They have multi-billion dollar plants here; they’re getting away with not paying taxes that they should be.

But the messaging to Republican voters should be personal. Do you want to deer hunt next season? Do you want to fish? Do you want to duck hunt? Well, you’re not going to be able to do that if the land literally sinks into the Gulf of Mexico.

LW: Part of this too is that for a long time we were a petrochemical state, and the solvency of our budget was contingent on the price of a barrel of oil. I’m not sure if that is true anymore, and let’s talk about this. Diversifying our economy seems to be something that must be a priority.

JD: You’ve literally stolen the words out of my mouth that I use about diversifying our economy.

LW: Well, tell me what you mean by that.

JD: We need to invest more in green and renewable energy. Why aren’t we getting money- which our Congressman should do- to build and improve our infrastructure? That actually helps create jobs and grow businesses. We need to bring tech companies in. We need to bring in solar and wind companies too. We get a lot of sun and wind here. These companies need to be here. You know, one of the newest, highest-paying jobs in the nation is Windmill Technician.

LW: I’m going to ask a couple of more localized questions about the race and then maybe get into some personal background questions. And then, I have to ask you about Donald Trump. You know he will play a big role in this year’s elections.

JD: Okay.

LW: It wasn’t too long ago that a Democrat, Don Cazayoux, held the seat you’re seeking, but since then, a lot has changed due to gerrymandering and redistricting. Most notably, a large swath of majority African-American neighborhoods in Baton Rouge are now in the 2nd district, which is held by Cedric Richmond. What do you see as your pathway to victory?

JD: In 2015, John Bel Edwards won this district. A year later, although she came up short, Hillary Clinton received more votes here than I would need to win during a mid-term election. My pathway to victory is to reach out to these voters and to swing voters, to talk about the issues with them, because there are enough votes here to ensure I can win.

My message is “I am you.” I’m not some politician who went to college and dropped out like Garret Graves. I’ve been working all of my life. I wasn’t given a silver spoon or handed a job because of my family’s connections.

I don’t think he’s had blisters on his hands. I don’t think he’s had mud on his boots.

LW: I lived in Baton Rouge for two years, and I still return all of the time, at least twice a month. I think that anyone who has ever driven through Baton Rouge will tell you that the number one issue, they feel, is traffic. The interstate, in particular. And this is a federal issue. As you may recall, a couple of years ago, then-President Obama committed something like $100 million to help solve some of the problems. Have you heard of any compelling traffic plans that you think are reasonable and that we could get done in the short-term?

JD: In my opinion, from what I’ve seen going around the state with my job, yes, it would be great if we could get a new bridge. It would have been great if Bobby Jindal and the last congressional delegation had done something. But now, you’re talking at least a decade before anything could happen. You have to survey the project; that’s in our constitution. You have to plan it. You have to get environmental clearances. Right now, that’s at least ten to twelve years away. So, yes, a new bridge is needed, but in the short-term, we can do other things.

First of all, the problem is obvious. On the interstate, you have three lanes that crush down into one lane. We need to identify the biggest employers that cause traffic congestion, and we need to be creative. I’ve heard proposals about having certain plants in the area change their shift times. If some of these plants would switch their start times, that would help alleviate some of these problems in the short-term.

LW: To me, the issue is- and you live there and you see it everyday- are all of the 18 wheelers coming over that bridge. There has to be a way of redirecting that traffic. We could improve the old bridge, for example, and redirect 18 wheelers there.

JD: You’ve either done your research a lot, Lamar, or you’re somehow inside of my brain. Because that’s exactly what I’ve been telling co-workers of mine recently.

If you notice, when you come over that bridge, 18 wheelers sometimes literally have to stop while they’re climbing up the bridge and shifting gears. They have a lot of gears to shift, and by the time they get up to speed, they’re at the College Drive exit. That’s when the 18 wheelers can finally get up to speed.

LW: As a result of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of more people in your district who now have health insurance. Of course, your opponent is opposed to Obamacare. What are your thoughts?

JD: I obviously am in favor of having more people get coverage. I’d like to see a public option, but I know, pragmatically, that there needs to be a transition to that. I want inevitably something like Medicare for All, but I know, to get there, we have to first work with what we have and make changes to the Affordable Care Act.

LW: Justin, tell me a little bit about your background. You’re 29 years old. You’re openly gay. Are you married?

JD: Yes, since 2015.

LW: What’s your educational background?

JD: We moved around a lot when I was younger. My dad’s company moved us around, so I went to a lot of different elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. But I graduated from Zachary High in 2006.

LW: Hey, that is where Sen. John Neely Kennedy is from.

JD: Yes.

LW: Like Garret Graves, you’re also not a college graduate?

JD: That is correct.

LW: Did you ever enroll in college or did you go to work right out of high school? 

JD: Straight out of high school. Actually, two days after my graduation. I worked throughout high school. After school, I worked a 40 hour a week job. We moved around a lot, state to state, and they deleted some of my credits. There was no reciprocity. So, I had to retake all of my freshman classes during my sophomore year, but I still graduated on time. I had to work extra-hard.

LW: I’d be a little burnt out after high school, especially if I had to work a 40 hour job. Is that what you were feeling at the time?

JD: Basically. And two weeks after high school, I rented a trailer with a buddy of mine and worked, worked, worked. You know, my dad always taught me that if you want to do something, you have to get off your butt and do it.

LW: What does your dad do for a living? Or what did he do for a living?

JD: He’s recently retired, but he worked for a pipeline company.

LW: So were you born in Louisiana or somewhere else?

JD: Born in Louisiana, in Calcasieu Parish.

LW: What do you do now for a living?

JD: Currently, I work for a survey firm here in Baton Rouge. We do a lot of highways and some work with DOTD projects.

LW: What’s been the reaction of your colleagues, your network of friends, and your family to your decision to run for Congress? 

JD: Overwhelmingly supportive. From Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Trump supporters and Hillary supporters. Even those who don’t align with me politically have told me, “We may not agree on everything, but I know your heart is in the right place. You’re doing this for the right reasons, and I’m voting for you.”

LW: Are you close to your family?

JD: I love my family. I call my mother three times a week. I call my father three times a week. And before he passed away, I called my grandfather three times a week.

LW: What do you think of the President of the United States? 

JD: It’s very difficult to put out a statement on him, because depending on the time of day or the month, he changes. He’s very unpredictable. He flip-flops. What he says today might not be what he says tomorrow.

LW: Do you think he has the right temperament to be President?

JD: If I were in that position, I would focus on my job more instead of commenting on every little thing in the world that doesn’t necessarily need your attention. I would focus on what I’m being paid to do- my job.

LW: Do you think the President of the United States is a role model for children? 

JD: Absolutely not.

LW: I asked folks on Facebook if they had any questions for you, and I’m interested to hear your responses. But first, here’s a critical comment left by Kristi Hammatt. She writes, “I’m just not passionate about the guy running against Graves. It’s like he’s he liberal/gay version of Graves. I feel like it’s the same marketing: South Louisiana boy with mud on his shoes. Find me a reason to back him.”

JD: I actually do have mud on my boots. I don’t buy my boots to look like they have mud on them. I don’t roll up my sleeves for the cheap effect of looking as if I’m “getting down to business.” No, I actually work outside.

To make that comment about me with such little information, I just hope that, in the future, people will read up on me, who I am, and what I’m about before a rush to judgment. That’s been a failure of American politics for too long, a rush to judgment.

LW: I’ve got another one. This is from David Levy. “Ask if they agree that AG Jeff Landry should be pushing religion in public schools? Do they understand the importance of separation of church and state? Do they know what that means?”

JD: As a Congressman, I wouldn’t have much control over day-to-day issues in local schools, of course, but I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. You know, one of our founding fathers, I believe it was John Adams, wasn’t sworn in on the Bible; he was sworn in on a book of laws. Our founding fathers believed in the separation of church and state, and so do I.

LW: Two more questions. This one is from Doc Rhoades II. He writes, “I am concerned how we have lost our way from being a country that could be great to one so full of hate. We are turning on each other and we defund public education and the cry it’s broke, we cater to corporate and mega insurance and pharmaceutical companies but pull the rug out from under hard working people. Why do we pay for other countries to insure and educate their people but deny that to ours…. I’m college educated, I work in healthcare and retired military. I know we can do better. I’ve send it. Last but not least why do we care more for guns than people?”

JD: There’s one answer to everything he is asking. Less than half of Americans who are registered to vote actually vote. The single most patriotic thing you can do is to vote.

LW: This is from Charlie Stephens. “How can we help?”

JD: Sign up at the website, volunteer, donate, and most importantly, vote.

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